By Rachel Brown Hackney
Following the Feb. 27 County Commission workshop on Siesta traffic and parking issues, Gene Kusekoski — still the SKA president at that point — wrote an email to the board members, offering some thoughts about the discussion in which they engaged after listening to public comments.
“I believe Commissioner [Michael] Moran summarized it best when he recommended that you first figure out what solutions you want to implement and what they cost,” Kusekoski wrote. “Only then would it be appropriate to review whether some form of paid parking at the beach might be a means of funding those solutions.
“I know people are divided on the idea of taxpayer decals, but I ask that you remain open to the idea until a comprehensive access management plan has been fully developed,” Kusekoski continued. “Yes, property owners already pay taxes, but, coming from New Hampshire, another state without broad-based taxes, I know that usage fees are often implemented to fund certain services and amenities. Amortizing the costs into the general property tax rate increases costs for people who never use the beach, including those for whom every dollar is precious. You are the experts on such matters, so it would be presumptuous of me to recommend one approach over the other …
“The $25 per year decal price I cited was merely an example,” Kusekoski wrote, noting the remarks he made during the Feb. 27 workshop. “If you follow Commissioner Moran’s ‘What do we need to pay for?’ model, then the actual decal fee would be determined by how much additional revenue you need to cover expenses. It may turn out that visitor parking fees cover all expenses, so taxpayer parking could continue to be free. If a decal is implemented, there must be an exemptions process for low-income residents. Clearly, we do not want to do anything that prevents low-income families from enjoying our great beaches.”
On another point, Kusekoski wrote, “I know Commissioner [Nancy] Detert has mentioned bike sharing several times, but I respectfully suggest that the viewpoints of people who bike regularly should be heeded regarding the safety hazards in certain key areas. I would also discourage doing anything to negatively impact the existing bike rental businesses on Siesta Key.
“With regard to off-island biking, I would request that Commissioner Detert personally experience the ride from the Gulf Gate shopping area to Siesta Key via Stickney Point Road before promoting bike sharing for that journey,” he added. “There is no bike lane, and the sidewalk is very irregular, with many vestigial curb cuts to nowhere making for a rough ride. If you fall, you land in 45MPH traffic speeding right beside you. I must continue to strongly advocate changes to ensure riders can navigate this road safely before any more bike use is promoted there.”
During the Feb. 19 meeting of the Siesta Key Condominium Council, President Frank Jurenka made the same point to Nicole Rissler, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department, who was one of the speakers on the program.
Pointing out that he routinely bikes on the Key, Jurenka said that he does ride over from the island to McIntosh Road or Palmer Ranch to pick up The Legacy Trail route. “That’s a treacherous path.” It is 4.5 miles from Siesta to the Trail, he added.
When he asked whether staff has any plans to improve that access, in connection with work on the North Extension of The Legacy Trail, Rissler told him that no plan has been proposed thus far.
Nonetheless, she added, “That’s definitely on the list of things that we’re working on.”
“Good,” Jurenka responded.
Continuing his Feb. 27 email, Kusekoski wrote, “Further, people picking up a bike sharing ride would still need a place to park their car off-island, bringing us back to off-island parking as the primary need.”
“Several speakers suggested redesigning Siesta Beach parking to accommodate more cars,” he added. “I think we all know that there are too many cars coming to Siesta Key already, so making yet more parking spaces available is counterproductive. Please focus on ideas like using Phillippi Estate Park for off-island park and ride. I would also still like to see a deal negotiated with Benderson for some amount of park and ride space.”
With the latter comment, Kusekoski was referencing the plans for the Siesta Promenade mixed-use development at the intersection of U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road. On Dec. 12, 2018, Benderson Development won County Commission approval — on split votes — to construct 414 condominiums, a 130-room hotel and 140,000 square feet of commercial and office space on about 24 acres on the northwest corner of the intersection. The board decision has been challenged in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court.
During the Feb. 27 workshop, Commissioner Charles Hines noted that he had asked that staff explore the idea with Benderson representatives of a public parking garage on the Siesta Promenade property, to facilitate a park-and-ride program. Staff did broach the idea with company representatives, Hines added, but “it didn’t get very far.”